Top American beers for your Thanksgiving table


Published November 20, 2012


While the rest of the panicked holiday preppers fret over which wine pairs best the Thanksgiving turkey, we have an alternate suggestion for the peripatetic pilgrims bound for your table this year: Serve beer.

“It’s not like wine, which can get confusing. Beer provides bold, distinguishing flavors and expressions,” says Josh Bernstein, author of Brewed Awakening: Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World’s Craft Beer Revolution. Jimmy Carbone, owner of New York City’s craft beer haunt Jimmy’s No. 43 agrees: “I feel many beers go with many foods, and are more flexible than wines.” 

Take that, Beaujolais Nouveau.

According to the Brewers Association, craft beer sales in the U.S. showed a nice 15 percent increase in 2011, and early reports for 2012 show 250 new craft brewery openings, with more expected. What that means for you? Great craft beer evermore available at a brewpub or store near you. 

Another bonus, you're less likely to embarrass yourself in front of the guests. Even those with a high alcohol content, at 10 percent or slightly more, don't pack a punch like wine, which can hit 16 percent or even 17 percent in a Zinfandel, for example. 

So how do you pair, exactly?  

"Typically, when I’m looking at doing beer pairing, I’m looking at the whole composition of plate,” says beer-and-food pairing expert Ben Lord of Kittery, Maine’s beer-happy restaurant, The Black Birch.

We asked our three experts -- Bernstein (whose just released the App version of his book last week), Carbone, and Lord -- to throw down their favorite suggestions for everything from turkey to pie, and all sides in between: Here’s what they came up with:

Appetizers: For the mixed bag of pre-dinner nosh, Bernstein smartly recommends a clean, crisp Pilsner like Victory Brewing’s Prima Pilsner. “Pilsners won’t knock you over but still have lots of flavor and character. For appetizers, my classic go-to awesome beer is Victory Brewing Prima Pilsner. It’s beautiful, brisk, and easy to drink. It’s great on its own but also goes so well with wide variety of appetizers, like cheeses. It cuts through a nice, rich brie but also makes a great complement to sharp cheddar.”

Turkey with gravy:  “Oftentimes, I think a really good farmhouse-style Belgian works here,” says Bernstein. “It’s an earthy and intriguing style, that started back in the day when it was given to Belgian farmhand workers since there was no potable water. It’s a style that’s been picked up by a lot of American brewers, and can run the gamut from dry and hoppy, to sweet and spicy, to peppery and lively. His pick for this holiday:  Colorado’s Funkwerks Saison Belgian-Style Ale, at 6.8 percent ABV, it’s got notes of citrus, black pepper, and a slight, pleasant lingering bitterness. “It’s classic! The pepper and citrus cut through the richness of gravy and won’t overpower everything else.”

Stuffing and Dressing:  For the stuffing lovers in the house (especially those who love the addition of sausage in the mix), Carbone says think brown. “Sausage can be spicy and it’s a little fatty, too, so a good brown ale is great. It’s also just a good fall beer.” Carbone’s recommendation: New York’s Brooklyn Brown Ale or Ommegang Abbey Ale. And what about those who prefer traditional herby, cornbread dressing? “Any farmhouse Saison beer will do well, and lots of breweries are doing great versions,” says Lord, especially those that use a little wild yeast during the fermentation process, which may add slightly tart undertones. “That works really well with heavy food and cuts through the rest of the meal, as well as highlights the herb qualities that you might find in cornbread dressing.”Lord’s picks: Allagash Confluence and Jolly Pumpkin’s Maracaibo Especiale.

Mashed Potatoes: If a gravy boat lands on a table without mashed potatoes, does it even exist? We think not. Buttery, creamy mashed potatoes are a must for many families on Thanksgiving, and for that Lord recommends a porter like Smuttynose Brewing’s Robust Porter. “Dark, rich, malty, and dry. Reminiscent of strong coffee with a touch of sugar. I would enjoy this alongside a big bowl of mashed potatoes. I love creamy buttery mashed - the two together would be like adding cream to the coffee. It would also nicely complement a southern-style oyster dressing.” What about those who yearn for yams? Says Lord, “If you bring heat to it with pepper, or more savory additions like bacon, Allagash or Goose Island’s Belgian or Saison styles. “Stay away from sweeter Belgian quads and lean more toward Pales,” Lord advises. “Lighter-style Saison and farmhouse ales are right in the wheelhouse for Thanksgiving dinner.”

Green Beans and Brussels Sprouts:  Love your veggies? Lord says Northcoast Scrimshaw Pilsner out of Fort Bragg, Calif., offers refreshing and apropos lemon notes. “I could drink it all day and think it would shine as an accompaniment to the greens beans on your table.” And for the Brussels sprouts lovers among you, “Go with a wild yeast beer,” says Carbone. “Not necessarily sour, but one with a sour finish. Brussels sprouts are complex, and if you add bacon to them that adds fat. The sour finish cuts through bacon.” Try Russian River Brewing’s Sanctification.  

Squash:  “Squash is awesome!” says Carbone. “When roasted with butter or even maple syrup, it’s earthy and delicious.” Whether it’s butternut, acorn, or pumpkin, Carbone says pale ales are the way to go. “People have been so into IPAs that they forget how great pale ale can go with food. You don’t need something so complex here.” Carbone’s picks: a crisp, food-friendly Victory Headwaters Pale .

Cranberry Sauce: For the sweet-tart flavor of that must-have holiday side, cranberry sauce, Belgian pale ales are Lord’s go-to, and Goose Island’s large-format options are a great choice, he says. “The Sophie and Mathilde ales are pretty great. Sophie is a really nice, easy drinking Belgian pale, with  coriander, spice, and orange notes that go great with cranberry sauce, even if it’s got ginger in it, too. The Mathilde is similar but brewed with wild yeast so there’s tartness, too, that’s nice with cranberry.”  

Pie: Beer with pie?! Absolutely. For rich holiday pecan pie, Carbone says stout is where it’s at. “They have a dry finish and a little roasty or chocolate character to them. Regionally, there are a lot of good stouts out there now.” A great bet, says Carbone, is Brooklyn, NY’s Six Point Diesel Stout or Newport, Oregon’s Rogue Shakespeare Stout. If pumpkin is your pick, though, Bernstein steers you away from the obvious matchy-matchy pumpkin beers. “Personally, I want to contrast a little to bring out different flavors in both the dish and beer – Imperial stouts go super well!” His pick: Deschutes Brewery’s The Abyss Imperial Stout. “It’s roasty with super jet-black stout notes of dark fruit. At 9 percent ABV, it’s also a good warming beer! People who don’t have a sweet tooth like on its own, too.” And for the must-have apple pie? “Apple pie is going to be sweet already, so you don’t want a lot of sweetness in beer,” cautions Bernstein. “Look for Wisconsin’s Fallen Apple Furthermore beer, which blends fresh-pressed cider with a cream-style ale.”